Book Review: The Massacre of Mankind by Stephen Baxter

Stephen Baxter is one of my favorite sci-fi authors. I’ve reviewed several of his books before, but one that I haven’t is The Time Ships, which was a sequel to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine authorized by the Wells estate for the 100th anniversary of its publication in 1895.

I mention this because The Time Ships is one of my all-time favorite books and because Baxter recently wrote a sequel to another classic novel. Two years ago, the Wells estate authorized him to write a sequel to The War of the Worlds for that novel’s 120th anniversary. That sequel is The Massacre of Mankind, and while it’s not as good as The Time Ships, it was still a fun read and a very insightful and well-thought-out follow-up to Wells’s classic.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

Despite its grandiose title, Wells’s original The War of the Worlds concerned a very small Martian invasion—just ten ships land in Surrey, England, and a few dozen Martian “fighting machines” come out. They still do enormous damage because they carry deadly disintegrating “Heat-Rays” and are seemingly impervious to Earth weapons, but it’s a very local affair before they’re wiped out by Earth bacteria.

In The Massacre of Mankind, the Martians step up their game, first ten times and then a hundred times the scale of their 1907 invasion of Surrey. In 1920 and 1922, they send a powerful invasion force to take over Earth (and Venus). The humans have gained some technology from their first invasion, but the Martians are still at a great advantage. All the military might of Earth can only match a fraction of the Martians’ strength. It seems that mankind’s only hope is Walter Jenkins, the mentally traumatized narrator of The War of the Worlds, and his sister-in-law, Julie Elphinstone, whom he sends on a secret mission behind enemy lines to try to communicate with the Martians.

One thing that always impresses me about Stephen Baxter is how meticulously he plans and researches his novels. The Massacre of Mankind feels a lot like a sequel H. G. Wells would have written. It’s not exact. Baxter eases off Wells’s heavy-handed social commentary and even slips in a few digs at Wells himself. He also mixes early twentieth century science and modern science together. Venus and Jupiter are depicted as habitable at the same time that the Martians are using the far more modern concept of kinetic orbital strikes (which have the force of an atomic bomb) to destroy their military opposition. Yet for all this, other elements like the improbably large earthworks built around the Cordon are clearly taken from Wells’s work.

It might be more accurate to say The Massacre of Mankind is a sequel Wells could have written had he been so inclined. It really does feel like an early twentieth century novel for the most part. Either way, it’s a fascinating story, and it extends the world created by the original work masterfully.

And now I’m wondering if Mr. Baxter has any ideas about a sequel to The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau.

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History’s Dinner Party

I wrote this post in 2016, but it got buried in my folder of planned posts. I honestly don’t even remember where I got the idea. I think it was a writing prompt in a group I attended at the time. Anyway, I’ve cleaned it up and updated it to put it up now.

Prompt: If you could invite any four people, living or dead, to dinner, who would you invite?

To start off, there are two people I think I would definitely invite to my dinner party.

Number 1: Michael Faraday. Possibly the greatest experimental scientist of all time, Faraday discovered the principles underlying most of our modern electrified society, including advancing the electric motor, inventing the electric generator, a bunch of discoveries in chemistry and optics, and helping to discover the laws of electromagnetism, all without the benefit of a math degree. He’s my favorite scientist because of all these achievements and because of his devout faith.

Number 2: Elon Musk. Musk was more on top of his game in 2016 than he is now, but I still think he’d be worth talking to. After all, even with his current troubles, he’s basically the real-life Tony Stark. He has rockets, electric cars, solar panels, batteries, and the Hyperloop (as skeptical as I am about that). That’s just plain cool.

After those first two, it gets a bit harder. I could pick more scientists. Nikola Tesla would be just plain cool. Richard Feynman or Neil deGrasse Tyson (the latter of whom I’ve had the privilege to meet in person) would both be the life of the party, I’m sure, but I’ve already got Faraday for a famous scientist, and I feel like I should consider other options before committing to more.

Jesus or any number of other Biblical or religious figures in history would certainly be good choices, but they’re not exactly my go-to dinner guests. I’d be much more interested in having a long conversation with one of them one on one.

I should probably address the fact that most of my possible picks are likely to be white men, and I might want to branch out from that, but for a party this small (and with what will ultimately become a definite theme), it’s hard to make that the primary factor. It’s an unfortunate fact of history that the large majority of (for example) major scientific discoveries were made by white men. If I were inviting ten people, I would absolutely write a more diverse guest list, but with only four, I’m focusing mainly on putting together an interesting cast of personalities who would work well together, and I have a different direction in mind for that.

Another category I haven’t mentioned is important political or historical figures. Ordinarily, I might pick James Madison or Abraham Lincoln from that group, but since I’ve already got two scientists/inventors, I think there’s a better option who would be a good fit with them—would mesh with the interesting personalities.

Number 3: Benjamin Franklin. Founding father, inventor, early abolitionist, newsman, and more. And if his reputation is anything to go by, he would probably be the life of the party, too.

For the last one, I have all the same considerations as before, and the choice isn’t any easier, but this time, I want to go in a different direction. One thing I’ve imagined along these lines is bringing someone from the ancient world to the present. I think that would work with the people I’ve already picked, but I need to choose the right one. They would need to be someone we could dazzle with our modern science and technology, but I also want them to be someone who would have a chance at actually understanding it. And I think there’s only one choice for that.

Number 4: Archimedes of Syracuse. Greek mathematician, inventor, and designer of advanced weaponry. (Plus we could settle once and for all whether or not his Death Ray really worked.)

So, that’s my historical dinner party. It did wind up being four famous scientists and inventors, but I think it would be a very interesting combination. What are your choices? Leave a comment if you have your own opinions.

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Movie Review: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Godzilla: King of the Monsters is this year’s big giant monster movie (obviously). A sequel to the 2014 reboot of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, this movie features bigger villains, bigger monsters, and a pretty epic giant monster fight.

Honestly, none of these movies have been fantastic. The 2014 Godzilla was okay. Kong: Skull Island didn’t really work for me. And this time around, the media coverage has gotten, honestly, kind of weird. I’ve rarely seen a movie with this big a gap between the critics’ and audience’s reviews. And it’s not just Rotten Tomatoes, where it tends to skew to the extremes and is currently sitting at 39% vs. 87%. IMDB’s audience score is 6.9 out of 10, while Metacritic gives it a much worse 48 out of 100.

What’s going on? I don’t know, but I actually thought it was pretty good—in fact, the best of the three.

My rating: 4 out of 5.

I think the biggest flaw was right at the start, where they introduce the new characters, Mark, Emma, and their daughter, Madison. The introduction made it clear what was going on, but having only seen the previous movie once, I honestly didn’t know if we were supposed to recognize them from before and therefore how we were supposed to think about them. It made it confusing because they looked like random victims in the first scene, but they’re shown to be Monarch scientists in the second. I’ll save you the trouble now. They’re all-new characters.

But while the movie probably would have benefited from more returning characters, it still turned out pretty well. We had Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and King Ghidorah all duking it out, with some pretty cool battle scenes. And even with only a passing knowledge of the lore, it was fun seeing how much of it they managed to fit into the story. (The Oxygen Destroyer, anyone?)

I don’t have a whole lot else to say about this movie. This kind of movie, I suspect most people are mainly just going to a matinee to see a giant monster fight. But unlike what many critics say, it had a fairly complex and interesting human storyline, too, and I enjoyed it all around.

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Movie Review: Pokémon Detective Pikachu

So, what do you get if you mash together Pokémon, Dr. Dolittle, and a buddy cop film? You get what is probably one of the most ridiculous premises for a movie I’ve ever seen. (For a theatrical release, anyway; Syfy B-movies get way worse.) When I first saw the title, Detective Pikachu (or technically Pokémon Detective Pikachu; it’s an anime thing), I thought it was insane.

Then, I saw the trailer, and it actually looked good.

Of course, trailers lie all the time, and a good trailer can still mean a really bad movie.

But then the reviews were good, too.

I was never into Pokémon as a kid—didn’t play the game, didn’t trade the cards. I saw a few episodes of the cartoon in passing, but even then, most of my knowledge of the franchise comes from Generation I. I don’t play Pokémon Go, either. But this movie looked so crazy that I just had to see it, and…

It was decent. I had fun with it, but the biggest failing of this movie is that it took me at least halfway through to be sold on it. If it hadn’t, I would have rated it higher, but even so, it’s still worth seeing.

My rating: 3.5 out of 5.

So, what’s going on here? Tim Goodman is a small-town kid who is a failed Pokémon trainer (a social stigma in the Pokémon world). He learns that his father, Harry, a famous detective, has been killed in a car crash. So, he goes to his father’s apartment in Ryme City, where he meets a talking Pikachu (Pokémon are animals and are not supposed to be able to talk) who insists Harry is still alive despite not remembering what happened, and they head off to try to find him.

My first problem with the movie was that the first half hour felt too video gamey. By that I mean the pacing felt like video game-style exposition. I’m not sure if I can really define that. A little too clean-cut, maybe—jumping straight between conversations that are clearly meant to do nothing but establish the facts the viewer needs to know about the characters and the story. And I know that sounds like something good stories are supposed to do, and it is, but there was just something that felt perfunctory about it.

The movie picks up from there, though, even though it seems a little too easy for Tim and Pikachu to find out what they need to know. My biggest problem was that they didn’t explore the ideas at all as well as they could have. The Torterra garden, for example. They could have done a lot more with that. In fact, there should have been some more consequences to that scene, but they pretty much just sit there. They do one thing that’s important to the plot that could have been done more easily by the Greninja fight and would have left more time for sleuthing.

Basically, so-so screenwriting. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t live up to its zany premise. Tim couldn’t even talk to other Pokémon besides Pikachu, although this was already implied by the trailers and makes sense in retrospect. Maybe it’s because I’m not really a Pokémon fan, but that’s my take on it.

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The Phylogeny Explorer Project

I wrote before about Aron Ra because of his debate with Creationist Kent Hovind. Ra is well know in these admittedly limited circles as a militant atheist and a staunch defender of evolution, but perhaps less well-known is that he is also an amateur scientist. (And despite what Hovind would tell you, amateur does not imply a lack of credibility. He definitely knows what he’s talking about.)

Aron Ra’s main project is something called the Phylogeny Explorer Project. As he describes it, “it is an attempt to render the entire taxonomic tree of life as a navigable, online encyclopedia.” In other words, he wants to put the evolutionary tree of all known species on one easy-to-use website. That website recently went live at, and f you’re interested in biology or evolution or even just dinosaurs or something, you should really check it out.

So what am I talking about, exactly? Most explanations of evolution will usually go into this at least a little. Simply put, the tree of life is usually shown as something like an actual tree, like this:

And the idea goes all the way back to Darwin, who in 1837 sketched this representation:

But to meet Ra’s goal of including every species we know would mean a tree with literally millions of branches. How is he doing it? With a continuous, navigable tree that you can select any section of and how deep you want to go in it, and it looks like this:

This is the base tree for animals. It might not look like much, but when you navigate through it, you can see how much is going on here.

Ra has been working on this project for ten years. He began it when he discovered that there was no website of this type that really did it right. Other such projects exist, but many of them only include living species, not fossils. Many are unwieldy and hard to use or modify. Only one was scientifically peer-reviewed: the University of Arizona’s Tree of Life Web Project, but it ran out of funding ten years ago, and much of it badly outdated and doesn’t include modern genetic studies at all.

The Phylogeny Explorer Project is an attempt to fill this gap in the literature and media. It’s not peer-reviewed yet either, but it is based on scientific papers. And already, it is by far the most complete and the best-researched digital tree of life in the world, and it was designed specifically to be free and open, volunteer-run, and with enough funding and infrastructure to make it sustainable indefinitely. They’re still a ways from doing all of that, but they’ve already surpassed all other projects of this sort that have been attempted.

Ra has been working on this so hard because he believes that taxonomy—the study of evolutionary relationships and the evolutionary tree—is the best evidence for evolution because it lays it out so clearly. But he also believes that this is a valuable tool for scientists, educators, and laypeople alike, and I have to agree with him. I know I’ve wanted a tool like this since I was in elementary school, and I had to settle for encyclopedia articles, the Tree of Life Project, and later Wikipedia’s extensive, but contradictory cladograms. The Phylogeny Explorer Project is something that’s been needed for a long time, and I’m very excited to finally see it in action.

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Movie Review: Avengers: Endgame

Eleven years. Twenty-two movies. Forty-eight hours of films alone, plus TV and online series. And it all ends with the three-hour epic conclusion of the Avengers Saga, Avengers: Endgame. (At least until Phase Four starts.)

You know what, I’m going to say it right now. This was the best Marvel movie ever. Any series. And maybe that’s because it’s standing on the shoulders of the emotional weight of Infinity War and even the entire MCU. It doesn’t matter. This was the best.

My rating: 5 out of 5, And for once, I wish the scale went higher.

Oh, and I’ll save you the trouble: there is no extra scene during or after the credits. Though stick around if you want to hear the audience gasp in incredulity.

So, this is without a doubt the movie event of the year—nay, of the past four years. I think the only more highly anticipated movies of this decade were Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. For all the hype that Infinity War had, and deservedly so, Avengers: Endgame has it beat. Early estimates said it could become the highest-grossing film of all time, beating out Avatar. (That’s right. No Marvel movie including Infinity War has beat out Avatar or even Titanic yet. It’s time to unseat James Cameron from the top two spots.)

Alright, now for the serious stuff. If you’ll recall, in Infinity War, Thanos straight-up won, wiping out half the sentient beings in the universe because apparently no one told him demographic transitions are a thing. Doctor Strange said that this was this only way to beat him in the end, but even Iron Man didn’t know how to do it. Plus, Iron Man was stranded on a dead planet, and over half of the Avengers are dead. Ant-Man is trapped in the Quantum Realm, and Nick Fury called Captain Marvel before he disintegrated, but even with them, it’s going to be hard to beat the man with the fully-powered Infinity Gauntlet.

But Spider-Man has another movie coming up in three months, and Black Panther is far too lucrative to stay dead, so they’re going to have to pull it off somehow, or Marvel is sunk. Yeah, I think this story deserves three hours to tell it.

I think there are three particular reasons why this movie is the best though…

 MASSIVE spoilers below! You have been warned!

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The Evolution Debate: What is Evolution?

Previous post in this series: Why are there still monkeys?

I wrote before about one of the problems with the creation v. evolution debate being PRATTs, or “Points Refuted a Thousand Times.” In that post, I explained why “If humans came from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?” is fallacious in a different way than you’ll usually hear, exploring in-depth exactly what different “kinds” of animals (including monkeys) means. I wanted to continue that discussion with some other common PRATTs. This time, I want to address the following:

“Evolution says we came from nothing.” OR “Evolution says we came from a rock.” Or for that matter, “Evolution says [anything that is not related to biology.]”

I want to get this one out of the way first because it’s another matter of definitions. It’s not exactly a PRATT—a purported argument against evolution that is easily refuted. It’s more of an argument from incredulity. (“This seems unbelievable; therefore it is false.”) In practice, it seems to be used more as a rhetorical device to ridicule evolutionists for believing supposedly ridiculous things, than it is for actual evidence, but the idea is the same.

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